One of the worries I often hear about opposition to electric cars is that we’re trading one resource for another – oil for lithium. The list of countries with large lithium deposits aren’t overtly hostile to the US and its allies, however they are further left than we are (but who isn’t really?). Evo Morales of Bolivia has already stated he didn’t want outside companies to come in to Bolivia and take the lithium. But do we have enough from other sources to provide the number of lithium-ion batteries we’ll need to power the cars of the future?
An article at Seeking Alpha discusses a lithium conference held in Chile this year. At this conference, the future of lithium demands and reserves were discussed. The geologist who authored the article estimates that there are 30M tonnes of elemental lithium and 160M tonnes of carbonate (Li2CO3) – the actual material used in the production of lithium ion batteries.
Beyond that, there is a fairly high confidence of accuracy of these claims. Drilling performed in a mine along the Oregon/Nevada border indicated that an estimate from years ago was within 10% of a recent drilling. Western Lithium is focusing in on a single deposit of lithium of around 770,000 tonnes (1.5B lbs.) in Kings Valley, Nevada, with an estimated 11 million tonnes total (25B lbs.). With the recovery estimated at 85% for this area, that’s 9.35M tonnes of carbonate. They estimate producing 20,000 tonnes of LCE per year by 2013, and at a rate of 0.6kg/kWh of battery, it is enough for 3.3 million 10kWh battery packs per year. The most recent peak in the 1990s there were only 8.7M passenger cars sold (not including SUVs, trucks, etc), so a 10kWh battery coupled with sufficient technologies to allow 40 miles per charge (increased power/kg, depth of discharge) would allow 38% of cars manufactured to be PHEVs if the market and prices allowed, and this is just from one site located in northern Nevada, accessing only a fraction of what the site is expected to produce.
Down in southern Nevada near Tonapah, there is the only existing lithium brine recovery operation in the US in Clayton Valley, Nevada, where estimates range from 2 million to 20 million tonnes of LCE. One more valley over, there is the Fish Lake Valley, which has similar concentrations of lithium as Clayton Valley. The Clayton Valley site currently produces 5,700 tonnes annually, or enough for about 594,000 16kWh battery packs per year – the first three or four years of Volt production wont exceed 250,000 units. And I still haven’t left the great state of Nevada.
So what does 160M tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) equate to in batteries? With current production techniques, 0.6kg of lithium carbonate will be used per kWh of battery storage capability, and 1 kg of lithium carbonate is equivalent to 0.1875 kg elemental (pure) lithium. At 0.6kg LCE per kWh, recovering 50% of the estimated 160M tonnes of LCE would result in 13.3 Billion 10kWh batteries, or 3.8B 35kWh battery packs for battery electric vehicles. There are about 1B vehicles on the planet now, and factoring in growth to 2B by 2030, it would take about 60 years to go through that amount of lithium (assuming batteries last 10 years). When you combine this with lithium recycling, the supplies are enough to last us well until we find the lithium-ion replacement technology.
So what about recovery? Even by 2030 when plug-ins and pure electric cars are 90%+ of the sales (as Google.org estimates), that would mean an annual US vehicle production of 12 million vehicles per year would require almost 11M vehicle battery packs, at an average of 15kWh each, that’s 165 million kWh, or 99 million kg, or 99,000 tonnes just for the US. Worldwide, by 2020, its estimated that lithium-ion batteries for vehicles will require at most 70,000 tonnes per year, while various mining industry groups claim to be able to ramp to the high figures needed just themselves. This area appears to be well covered.
Finally is cost. Even at $250/kWh (the 2020 industry target price), lithium’s only about 2% of the battery price. The price for LCE is about $8/kg, or about $4.80/kWh, even doubling it doesn’t have a much of an effect on the price – from 2% to 4% of total cost in 2020.
We will still need to figure out what will come after lithium, though some companies are already laying the groundwork for the post-lithium era. But the doomsayers don’t have much of a leg to stand on, and we still haven’t got into harvesting lithium from seawater (at a first-generation technology price of $22-32/kg, with enough lithium for 18 trillion Tesla Roaster battery packs).